On the lush plains of Congo's Virunga National Park last week, the convoy of porters rounded the final hill and trooped into camp. They gently set down the wooden frame they had carried for miles, and with it the very symbol of the African jungle: a 600-pound silverback mountain gorilla. A leader of a troop often visited by tourists, his arms and legs were lashed to the wood, his head hanging low and spots of blood speckling his fur. The barefoot porters, shirts torn and pants caked with dust from their trek, lay him beside three smaller gorillas, all females, who had also been killed, then silently formed a semicircle around the bodies. As the stench of death wafted across the camp in the waning afternoon light, a park warden stepped forward. "What man would do this?" he thundered. He answered himself: "Not even a beast would do this."
Park rangers don't know who killed the four mountain gorillas found shot to death in Virunga, but it was the seventh killing of the critically endangered primates in two months. Authorities doubt the killers are poachers, since the gorillas' bodies were left behind and an infant—who could bring thousands of dollars from a collector—was found clinging to its dead mother in one of the earlier murders. The brutality and senselessness of the crime had conservation experts concerned that the most dangerous animal in the world had found yet another excuse to slaughter the creatures with whom we share the planet. "This area must be immediately secured," said Deo Kujirakwinja of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Congo Program, "or we stand to lose an entire population of these endangered animals."
Back when the Amazon was aflame and the forests of Southeast Asia were being systematically clear-cut, biologists were clear about what posed the greatest threat to the world's wildlife, and it wasn't men with guns. For decades, the chief threat was habitat destruction. Whether it was from impoverished locals burning a forest to raise cattle or a multinational denuding a tree-covered Malaysian hillside, wildlife was dying because species were being driven from their homes. Yes, poachers killed tigers and other trophy animals—as they had since before Theodore Roosevelt—and subsistence hunters took monkeys for bushmeat to put on their tables, but they were not a primary danger.
That has changed. "Hunting, especially in Central and West Africa, is much more serious than we imagined," says Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International. "It's huge," with the result that hunting now constitutes the pre-eminent threat to some species. That threat has been escalating over the past decade largely because the opening of forests to logging and mining means that roads connect once impenetrable places to towns. "It's easier to get to where the wildlife is and then to have access to markets," says conservation biologist Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Economic forces are also at play. Thanks to globalization, meat, fur, skins and other animal parts "are sold on an increasingly massive scale across the world," she says. Smoked monkey carcasses travel from Ghana to New York and London, while gourmets in Hanoi and Guangzhou feast on turtles and pangolins (scaly anteaters) from Indonesia. There is a thriving market for bushmeat among immigrants in Paris, New York, Montreal, Chicago and other points in the African diaspora, with an estimated 13,000 pounds of bushmeat—much of it primates—arriving every month in seven European and North American cities alone. "Hunting and trade have already resulted in widespread local extinctions in Asia and West Africa," says Bennett. "The world's wild places are falling silent."
When a company wins a logging or mining concession, it immediately builds roads wide enough for massive trucks where the principal access routes had been dirt paths no wider than a jaguar. "Almost no tropical forests remain across Africa and Asia which are not penetrated by logging or other roads," says Bennett. Hunters and weapons follow, she notes, "and wildlife flows cheaply and rapidly down to distant towns where it is either sold directly or links in to global markets." How quickly can opening a forest ravage the resident wildlife? Three weeks after a logging company opened up one Congo forest, the density of animals fell more than 25 percent; a year after a logging road went into forest areas in Sarawak, Malaysia, in 2001, not a single large mammal remained.
A big reason why hunting used to pale next to habitat destruction is that as recently as the 1990s animals were killed mostly for subsistence, with locals taking only what they needed to live. Governments and conservation groups helped reduce even that through innovative programs giving locals an economic stake in the preservation of forests and the survival of wildlife. In the mountains of Rwanda, for instance, tourists pay $500 to spend an hour with the majestic mountain gorillas, bolstering the economy of the surrounding region. But recent years have brought a more dangerous kind of hunter, and not only because they use AK-47s and even land mines to hunt.
The problem now is that hunting, even of supposedly protected animals, is a global, multimillion-dollar business. Eating bushmeat "is now a status symbol," says Thomas Brooks of Conservation International. "It's not a subsistence issue. It's not a poverty issue. It's considered supersexy to eat bushmeat." Exact figures are hard to come by, but what conservation groups know about is sobering. Every year a single province in Laos exports $3.6 million worth of wildlife, including pangolins, cats, bears and primates. In Sumatra, about 51 tigers were killed each year between 1998 and 2002; there are currently an estimated 350 tigers left on the island (down from 1,000 or so in the 1980s) and fewer than 5,000 in the world.
If a wild population is large enough, it can withstand hunting. But for many species that "if" has not existed for decades. As a result, hunting in Kilum-Ijim, Cameroon, has pushed local elephants, buffalo, bushbuck, chimpanzees, leopards and lions to the brink of extinction. The common hippopotamus, which in 1996 was classified as of "least concern" because its numbers seemed to be healthy, is now "vulnerable": over the past 10 years its numbers have fallen as much as 20 percent, largely because the hippos are illegally hunted for meat and ivory. Pygmy hippos, classified as "vulnerable" in 2000, by last year had become endangered, at risk of going extinct. Logging has allowed bushmeat hunters to reach the West African forests where the hippos live; fewer than 3,000 remain.
Setting aside parks and other conservation areas is only as good as local enforcement. "Half of the major protected areas in Southeast Asia have lost at least one species of large mammal due to hunting, and most have lost many more," says Bennett. In Thailand's Doi Inthanon and Doi Suthep National Parks, for instance, elephants, tigers and wild cattle have been hunted into oblivion, as has been every primate and hornbill in Sarawak's Kubah National Park. The world-famous Project Tiger site in India's Sariska National Park has no tigers, biologists announced in 2005. Governments cannot afford to pay as many rangers as are needed to patrol huge regions, and corruption is rife. The result is "empty-forest syndrome": majestic landscapes where flora and small fauna thrive, but where larger wildlife has been hunted out.
Which is not to say the situation is hopeless. With governments and conservationists recognizing the extinction threat posed by logging and mining, they are taking steps to ensure that animals do not come out along with the wood and minerals. In one collaboration, the government of Congo and the WCS work with a Swiss company, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois—which has a logging concession near Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park—to ensure that employees and their families hunt only for their own food needs; the company also makes sure that bushmeat does not get stowed away on logging trucks as illegal hunters try to take their haul to market. Despite the logging, gorillas, chimps, forest elephants and bongos are thriving in the park.
Anyone who thrills at the sight of man's distant cousins staring silently through the bush can only hope that the executions of Virunga's gorillas is an aberration. At the end of the week, UNESCO announced that it was sending a team to investigate the slaughter.